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Dustin Putman

Demolition  (2016)
1 Star
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Judah Lewis, Chris Cooper, Polly Draper, Heather Lind, C.J. Wilson, Debra Monk, Malachey Cleary, Wass Stevens, Blaire Brooks.
2016 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, November 21, 2016.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée hit consistently authentic notes with his previous acclaimed pictures, 2013's "Dallas Buyers Club" and 2014's "Wild," but he can barely find a single one that rings true in "Demolition." Set in what is intended to be a facsimile of the real world, this hokey dramedy is ceaselessly contrived to the point of surrealism. Emotions are forced and overblown. Characters strike as insufferable writing constructs rather than actual people. The screenplay by Bryan Sipe (2016's "The Choice") is too cute and quirky and two-dimensional by a half, ultimately leading nowhere of plausible consequence. Attempts at metaphors club viewers over the head with clumsy transparency. Considering—and in spite of—the talent involved, "Demolition" is strikingly misguided.

When wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in a car accident, investment banker Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is forced to go through the motions of acting sad even though, really, he doesn't feel one way or the other about it. He's more concerned with a faulty vending machine that ate his money in the hospital's ICU. A letter to the company's customer service department puts him in contact with Karen (Naomi Watts), a single mother who is drawn to the rambling story he included about the tragic circumstances which led to him not being able to retrieve the peanut M&Ms for which he paid. As Davis begins to (figuratively and literally) dismantle the old life he once knew, he draws closer to Karen and her moody 15-year-old son Chris (Judah Lewis).

"Demolition" would be so twee it hurts if it weren't equally spiteful and disingenuous. As a protagonist, Davis is thoroughly unlikable. The film seems disinterested in understanding him, leading one to question whether he is sociopathic, mentally ill, or just plain horrible. His marriage was troubled, for sure, but his aloofness to his wife's violent sudden demise goes beyond the realms of being numb from trauma. An off-putting early scene where he practices his crying face in the bathroom mirror during Julia's wake is detrimental on its own, but made worse by the irrational actions which follow. Superficial and inconsiderate, ego-centric and lacking empathy, Davis lives in his own little world while taking what he likes from others. He's also, for what it's worth, maddening in his destructive, childish behavior, one minute dancing cheerfully down the busy city street listening to music and the next taking a sledgehammer to his beautiful multi-million-dollar home.

The actors, all of them usually terrific, are deserted by the unfocused material and Vallée's overbearing directorial hand. Scene after scene is underlined by tone-deaf histrionics. Attempts at humor mostly fall flat. The narrative meanders, trying to find an angle that works. With the exception of one or two quiet moments involving Chris Cooper (2013's "August: Osage County") as Davis' grieving father-in-law and boss Phil, plays for emotion range from ineffectual to painfully maudlin. Jake Gyllenhaal (2016's "Nocturnal Animals") does what is asked of him as Davis, but there is no way of breaking through to a character so confusingly defined. Flashbacks to happier times with Julia clash with his claims that he wasn't in love with her. Maybe that's the point, but the film lacks a convincing catharsis (and a hideous, would-be sentimental montage involving a carousel doesn't remotely cut it). As Karen, Naomi Watts (2016's "Allegiant") spends her time trying to figure out her purpose in the story, while promising newcomer Judah Lewis is so self-assured as the insecure Chris he deserves a better movie—preferably one that does not involve a ridiculous scene where he performs target practice on a bulletproof-vested Davis. In 2007, "Demolition" mysteriously appeared on the Blacklist, an annual list of the most-liked unproduced screenplays. In its journey to the screen, something clearly has gone very wrong.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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